Does Russia’s leading opposition activist cavort with space aliens? Or just with enemies of the state?
A photograph of a grinning Aleksei Navalny, the blogger turned leader of street protests in Moscow, standing beside a bulbous-headed extraterrestrial could be found on his own Web site over the weekend.
Another photograph, showing Navalny with a man wanted by the police in Russia, the exiled financier Boris Berezovsky, appeared in a newspaper distributed on Saturday by a pro-Kremlin group in the major provincial city of Yekaterinburg, according to residents. The caption said Navalny “never kept secret” his ties to Berezovsky.
Navalny said it was a fake, and his assertion was supported when the original, unaltered photograph appeared on Russian Web sites. That, in turn, set off a flurry of parodies using altered photographs, including the image of the alien, all seeming to highlight the outdated nature of some Russian propaganda.
“Vladimir Putin and his team do not understand the Internet,” Navalny said in a telephone interview, referring to the Russian prime minister.
The image appeared to keep with a long and rich tradition in Russia of using photomontage as a political instrument. Altered prints routinely appeared in Soviet magazines.
Within hours of the newspaper’s distribution at an ice sculpture festival in Yekaterinburg, 850 miles east of Moscow, the real photographer came forward in a blog post to declare that the image had been doctored. The chain of events illustrated how the Internet and crowd-sourcing are transforming Russian politics, tilting the equation in favor of activists like Navalny.
The photographer, Alexey Yushenkov, who was not involved in the later alteration, posted the original photograph and a series of shots just before and after, helping to establish their authenticity.
Taken in May in the studio of the Echo of Moscow radio station, the photographs showed Navalny standing beside not Berezovsky but another Russian businessman, Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets and a candidate for president — someone not considered a discrediting associate.
Within hours, Russian bloggers had turned the tables on the faux photograph.
Online, Navalny was seen grinning beside the alien with his urn-shaped head. The caption said Navalny “never kept secret that in his struggle with Putin he took money from aliens.”
Through the day on Sunday, other photographs appeared: Navalny with Stalin (who, incidentally, was a pioneering user of political photomontage); Navalny with Putin; Navalny with a nude male bodybuilder.
Navalny, who spoke in a telephone interview from Mexico, where he is on vacation but updating his blog, said the incident might not put to rest the practice of altering photographs in politics but did show its drawbacks in the Internet age.
“Contemporary technologies, the contemporary information society, are barriers to such primitive approaches,” he said. “You publish something in a regional newspaper. Within an hour, it is on the Internet. Quickly, the real photographer is found.”
“The general effect of all these actions led to more people learning that Putin and his team are just swindlers and fraudsters,” he said.
A real estate lawyer by profession, Navalny rose to prominence through his LiveJournal blog, which has been read by more than 1 million people, and through Web sites intended to get the masses involved in reporting on official corruption. He coined the epithet “the Party of Swindlers and Thieves,” in reference to Putin’s United Russia party, a phrase adopted by protesters.
Photomontage achieved its height as an ideological tool in the 1930s but remained in practice even in the late Soviet period, said Olga Sviblova, the director of the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, and an authority on Soviet photomontage.
Even if the alteration is obvious, Sviblova said, a photomontage can be effective as caricature, leaving a lingering, negative image.
“Ideological propaganda works better if it is blunt,” she said. “We, unfortunately, have to acknowledge that crude political technologies do work — up to a point. And maybe we are reaching this point today in Russia.”